What I Learned From Being a Rebound (And Having One, Too)
John Mulaney has a 2018 bit about a gazebo constructed in 1863. “Building a gazebo in the middle of the Civil War is like doing stand-up comedy now.”
I feel the same, writing about dating in the middle of a global pandemic. Though maybe the timing isn’t as bad as I’ve bunkered down with my sister and parents here in Ohio. When I’m able to tune out the onslaught of apocalyptic updates, I find myself slowing down and reflecting — sure, on privilege, gratitude and how lucky I’ve been for a month’s worth of Zion Willamson — and also on my relationships, especially two in particular.
“Blah, blah, you’re the first person I’ve really liked in a long time, blah, blah.”
I was listening, but I hadn’t heard her. Or maybe I’d just heard what I wanted to hear. That was my third date with “Lily.”
On our fourth date, she took me to “Hamilton.” Yes, that “Hamilton.” She got tickets three days before the show because her friend is not only in “Hamilton,” he also plays Hamilton.
Emotionally cautious and measured, I’m generally immune to a head-over-heels tumble. But the morning after the show, I woke up feeling like a Kafka protagonist: a total stranger to myself. I was whipped into a frenzy, consumed by an insatiable desire to talk to her, touch her, be anywhere near her. She was The Moon and I was the tides, her gravity pulling me at every moment.
But just as I emotionally floored it like Vin Diesel, Lily slammed on the breaks. She cancelled plans, ignored texts and parried excuses. She found ways to dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge my every communication. Several days passed. Dismayed, disoriented and rapidly approaching a month-long international trip, I asked her to call me. She did (as I was boarding a plane, of course), and I found myself in anti-rom com, on the phone going from ghosted to goodbyed.
“I’m still getting over my past relationship,” Lily told me, “and I’m just not sure what I want.”
“I kind of figured that, but I think I just needed to hear you say it,” was my response — but she already had.
It wasn’t with what her distance implied, but with her words I’d refused to hear the week before. “I’m six months out of a six-year relationship,” she had confessed back on our third date. “You’re the first person I’ve liked in a long time … all this has kind of startled me.”
I never heard from Lily again. I was crushed, but I also understood.
A few years before, I’d been on the other side.
“I am three months removed from getting my heart ripped out of my chest!” I snapped. “Can you understand where I’m coming from?”
Whether it was me projecting or “Jen” just applying pressure, either way, the weight was too real for me to handle. She retreated into apology and submission, but she should’ve cut and run. I could’ve done the same, but we were both too naive and hopeful to let it go. It took another couple months before we did.
This was 2017, the year I’d gotten out of a two-year relationship when my ex dumped me without warning. I was feeling so low that I bought a notebook and decided I wouldn’t put down the pen until I’d filled an entire page with things I like about myself. I wrote them all down, even starting to believe some. It was the night of the McGregor-Mayweather fight, and instead of watching, I went out dancing by myself. That’s where I first met Jen.
Aside from my blowup, our five months together were lovely. That said, they were also doomed. Looking back, the signs were clear. Jen and I never met each others’ friends or families, and as much as we were emotionally connected, we made no attempt to integrate into each others’ lives. I told her I wasn’t ready to have sex. I convinced myself I was going slow to avoid jumping into anything too serious too soon, but in reality, I think I was drawing lines in the sand I had no intention of crossing.
My recent breakup loomed over Jen and I the entire time we were together. I didn’t want to get back with my ex, but my previous relationship still demanded an unfair amount of my attention, energy and space. It showed up everywhere, from quiet moments alone, to therapy, to conversations with friends and my writing.
In retrospect, my relationship with Jen was just a way to look at myself and my pain with clarity. It was also an x-ray — a way to examine the havoc wreaked on my insides in order to pinpoint where healing could begin.
I was trying to fill a void. I was busy lusting for validation, consistency, affection and the other once-abundant resources that had been ransacked in the middle of the night. Even in moments where I was ostensibly being selfless towards Jen (lending her a listening ear, helping her navigate work and family challenges), I was fulfilling another need: my need to be needed.
I don’t blame myself for seeking these things; I just regret taking them at someone else’s expense.
When I ended things, she tearfully appealed to my need for space with, “But I’m not asking for anything from you.” Maybe she was kidding herself. Maybe she meant it. Either way, I had nothing to give. To her, or to anyone, for a long time. When I used to tell Lily, “I’d love to see you, but no pressure,” I’m not sure I meant that. I said it because it felt like the right thing to say, but it wasn’t how I felt. I think she could sense that.
I think there are versions of a rebound that are healthy and therapeutic, like the bizarre one-night stand I had with a woman who came back to my place for a ravenous, pungent hookup, only to finish and proclaim, “I love New York!” before leaving.
The tough thing is when it’s a rebound for one person and not the other, someone is being misled, even unintentionally. If one partner is bouncing back, is the other getting kicked to the curb? If one is climbing out of an emotional hole, is the other getting stepped on?
In retrospect, when Lily said, “I’m six months out of a six-year relationship … this is kind of startling me,” I should have proceeded with extreme caution. Instead, I ignored the red flag and saw it as a matador’s cape. I charged through, only to suffer the consequences.
With Lily, I could’ve avoided being a rebound by listening to her needs. With Jen, I could’ve avoided making her a rebound by listening to my own.
With my wounds still so raw and painful, I didn’t need intimacy and communication and consistency; I needed more therapy, guys’ nights out and YouTube compilations of MLB hidden ball tricks. I needed reflection and recovery. Most of all, I needed time. Alone.
I remember leaving “Hamilton,” the stage-door serving as a portal from a surreal otherworld into ordinary life with Lily with me in both. We strolled arm-in-arm down the street, discussing careers, family and addiction, dually basking in Christmastime’s magic and fending off its chill. Our faces and spirits were illuminated by the intense, bright lights of Broadway. The crowds had dissipated, but the marquees silently boasted possibility and wonder into the night sky.
I felt things getting real with Lily and pulled closer; she felt it, too, and pulled away. As much as I told her I’d give her space, no amount would’ve been enough.
A year after Jen and I split, I passed her on the street. We locked eyes, and her sunshine smile emerged, triumphant and radiant through a constellation of freckles. Her expression wasn’t an affectionate “I’m happy to see you” or a vindicated “I’m happy without you.” It’s as if she was saying that her feelings had nothing to do with me: “I’m happy regardless of you.”
I hope when I see Lily I can say the same.